Sam Mellinger

On Yordano Ventura, the Royals’ struggling would-be star, and the search for answers

Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura
Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura

The problem with the Royals’ Yordano Ventura problem is that they have to wait, and hope, and they have to do all of this in the crossfire of a worrisome funk. We cannot choose our challenges. Ventura will have to earn his way past this one. The Royals, too.

Of all the things that needed to go right for the Royals in their encore to last year’s World Series championship, Ventura (finally) filling into his prodigious talent was among the most precarious.

And of all the things that have gone wrong for the Royals over the last two weeks, the starting pitching is among the most troublesome.

Ventura’s next opportunity to make this the higher-level season some of us thought it would be comes Wednesday, at Yankee Stadium, with the franchise that last season invested a five-year contract in him needing to be steadied and pulled from a top-to-bottom slump.

Ventura’s struggles carry a grander symbolism of his team’s current struggles.

The specific concern about Ventura that nobody around the Royals is voicing out loud, at least not yet, is that he may be hurt.

The reasons for suspicion are all circumstantial. His velocity is down, and his place among the league leaders in walks makes a mockery of the idea that he’s making a conscious sacrifice in the name of command. Data from the amazing FanGraphs indicates that Ventura is pitching with the same pace as ever, but there is a thought in some scouting circles that he shows occasional signs of discomfort, or worse, on the mound.

Because he is relatively small and throws extraordinarily hard, Ventura has always carried a heightened injury risk, even by the standards of professional pitchers.

If the Royals announce soon that he’s been grinding through discomfort, then a lot of this will make more sense: lowered fastball velocity, along with the worst walk rate, lowest groundball rate, and hardest contact surrendered in his career.

If Ventura isn’t hurt, then the problem is more foundational. No pitcher keeps clean mechanics on every pitch, and Ventura undoubtedly has at least some minor tweaks to fix whatever issues he or pitching coach Dave Eiland have noticed.

But Ventura’s biggest challenges have rarely been physical, or mechanical. They have almost always been mental. A year ago, he was wound so tightly that he incited separate incidents — one a 50-man melee, the other a bizarre back-and-forth with Mike Trout — over balls being hit back toward the mound.

He then overcompensated, pitching with the intensity of a Tuesday morning office meeting, and found himself performing so badly that he was demoted to the minor leagues.

Ventura got a reprieve when Jason Vargas’ elbow blew out, but the experience — at the time, the Royals tried to credit the acquisition of Johnny Cueto, but the timing and logic point to the pseudo demotion — helped Ventura find the right amount of controlled rage to be the team’s best starting pitcher over the regular season’s last two months.

What's wrong with the (15-15) Royals? 

In a similar way, Ventura again seems to be pitching without emotion. There could be any number of well-intentioned causes for this, from concentrating on his mechanics to avoiding a reprisal of his tumultuous 2015 spring.

The grander symbolism is hard to miss here. Ventura’s team is talented, with a track record that deserves respect, and by every indication is a group searching for its way.

Even when the core of a team remains largely intact, its personality changes from year to year. None of us are exactly the same as we were a year ago, or how we’ll be a year from now.

Multiply that by 25, with the amplification of big-stakes professional sports and the game’s ultimate accomplishment. The Royals’ 2015 team was different from 2014, and this particular group appears to to searching for its own balance between the unapologetic abandon of last year and the inevitable changes of last fall’s achievement and growing a year older.

It’s just that the Royals, and Ventura, have always been at their best when pushing that boundary between “intense” and “a little too intense.”

Bringing it back to Ventura, if we can assume he’s healthy, the fix is then entirely up to him. If he’s holding back velocity or emotion in the name of mechanics or command, it’s not working. His brightest moments have generally been just that — moments — because that emotional sweet spot can be elusive.

But the rest of his season, and disproportionate amount of the Royals’ immediate future, depends on his ability to find it.

The Royals' Yordano Ventura allowed two runs in five innings against the Twins in his first start.